Andrzej Wajda (now in his 80s) is a brilliant film-maker of international stature whose career has spanned the second half of the twentieth-century. This is a deeply personal film about a period and event in Poland’s history which still has the capacity to shock.
The striking opening sequence illustrates Poland’s predicament in 1939: two groups of people meet on a bridge, one fleeing east from the advancing Nazis and the other west from the Soviets, as the two powers carved up Poland between them under the terms of their short-lived non-aggression pact. The Polish Army was disarmed and dismissed except for the officers (estimates of numbers range from 15,000-22,000) who were detained. In 1940 the officers vanished, but rumours of their fate started to circulate. After the collapse of the Pact, the Germans took over the parts of Poland formerly occupied by the Soviets, and in Katy? forest they discovered mass graves containing the bodies of thousands of murdered Polish officers. The Soviets, accused, denied all responsibility and put the blame for the massacre on the Germans.
This remained the official Soviet position until 1990 when Gorbachev finally admitted that Stalin had ordered the NKVD to carry out not only the massacres but also deportations to labour camps and prisons in Russia. The reason? These men were the educated élite of Polish society: intellectuals, doctors, scientists, engineers, who had answered their country’s call to arms and were the potential leaders of resistance to Soviet control of a post-war Poland. Stalin decided to eliminate, pre-emptively, the threat that they posed to his post-war ambitions and so ordered the killing and detentions.
The film’s narrative, which becomes more fractured towards the end, charts the various stages of the war’s outbreak, the Nazi occupation and the post-war Soviet settlement through the eyes of the victims’ closest friends and relatives. The Soviet denial and their official cover-up (supported by puppet post-war Polish governments) meant that for years families could not find out what had happened to their fathers, brothers and sons. Instead, while deeply distrusting the authorities, many still hoped that their loved ones might return some day from a Soviet gulag. It also meant, for instance, that it became a crime against the state to put the true date of death – 1940 – on a gravestone, because this placed the death at a time when only the Soviets could have been responsible. The film’s final scenes graphically represent what had been repressed for so long by warring nations and conniving governments.
Andrzej Wajda was born in Poland in 1926. His father, Jakub, was a captain in the Polish infantry and died in the Katyn massacre and his mother taught in a Ukrainian school. In 1946 he went to Krakow and studied painting, and then moved on to the High Film School in Lodz to study film-directing (1950-1954) where he became fascinated by the French avant-garde. In 1955 he directed his first full-length film, Pokolenie, about a generation of youth coming of age during the Nazi occupation of Poland. His award-winning Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) concluded the trilogy about life in Poland during WWII. Despite Soviet pressure to conform, Wajda continued to make films that challenged their manipulation of society.
He won an honorary Oscar (2000) for his contribution to cinema, and an honorary Golden Bear (2006) at the Berlin Film Festival.
It is worth drawing attention to the score. Wajda uses fragments of several works by Krzysztof Penderecki, a fellow Pole and near contemporary. Several of Penderecki’s works have been arranged for film scores. He has composed works which describe and commemorate events in Poland’s history and suffering, such as The Polish Requiem and others which are dedicated more generally to victims of war, for example, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.
Cast – Andrzej Chyra, Artur Zmijewski, Danuta Stenka, Maja Ostaszewska
Andrzej Wajda | Poland | 2007 | 120 minutes | 15
Weighted vote 93.8%